Grand Bluffs Demonstration Forest
Increase biological diversity and watershed protection by promoting and accelerating healthy forest succession, reducing fire hazard, using sound forestry practices to create an educational demonstration forest.
The Grand Bluffs are a very special part of the Dinkey Creek and Shaver Lake area. The Bluffs are a dramatic geological feature of granite that rise above Blue Canyon and along both sides of Summit Creek. They offer an expansive view of the Great Central Valley of California and the coast range. The project property is 240 acres located in the Summit Creek watershed, northern Kings River drainage in Eastern Fresno County. Part of the Bluffs is situated along the western boundary of the property. The land is sloped NW to SW with elevations ranging from 6400’ to 5400’ down to Summit Creek. It is part of a 320 acre in-holding that is surrounded by National Forest land, the remaining 80 acres to the south owned by five individuals. There are four live water courses on this acreage, draining to Summit Creek. A number of stringer meadows are located along these water courses. The deep, rich soils that have formed here, abundant water and exposure, combine to create a site that supports a wide range of habitat. There are large populations of wildlife including deer, bear, small fur bearers, reptiles and a variety of birds. Also, there is a rich botanical diversity.
There are remnants of a lumber mill that operated here between 1907 and 1912 located on the NW corner of this property. 7MBF of timber was harvested off of the 320 private acres during its operation. Two railroad grades run through the area. This is where some of the most majestic old growth stands of trees had evolved. In human terms, the site is classified 1A for growing timber.
The heavily harvested project property was left idle from 1912 until 1947 when an extremely hot fire that started at the Bretz Mill in Blue Canyon to the west of Grand Bluffs, burned through the property and surrounding National Forest lands. Many old timers around here have memories of the intensity and devastation of this fire. It was one of the first big hot fires in this region that was fueled by vegetation that was out of balance due to human activity, early destructive logging practices and fire suppression from the early part of the 20th century. These conditions were not much different than the ecosystem throughout the Sierras that are so vulnerable to unprecedented destruction from fire.
The main goal of this project is to restore this land with well thought out human intervention and appropriate technology, to sustain a more balanced ecosystem. Ultimately, a balanced forest ecosystem can withstand and even benefit from natural or man caused fire.
After a hot fire, land in the Sierra Nevada goes through a succession of vegetation, evolving into a climax vegetation stage, or mature, old growth forest. Approximately 2/3rds of the property is in a primary vegetation succession stage of brush species, mainly ceanothus, which pioneers into an area after a fire, the seed needing heat and smoke scarification to stimulate germination. 1/3rd of the site is a diverse, productive mixed conifer forest.
This is an extremely rich site for re-establishing a healthy forest. Soil maps indicate the best productive soils for growing trees and there is an abundance of water. All the elements are here to create conditions, using sound forestry practices, for accelerating forest succession. It is envisioned that a project of this type would ultimately create a very diverse ecosystem that would improve forest health, increase wildlife habitat, and protect critical watershed.
All project work here will be inspired by using a whole-systems approach, a management process that respects all aspects of an ecosystem. Instead of forest land management emphasizing fast timber production, this process manages for watershed protection, wildlife habitat, soil building and diversity of non-timber species of trees, shrubs and native grasses. A healthy forest with attention given to the water cycle, is better able to withstand disease and support wildlife.
In 2004, a $57,000 grant through the National Fire Plan and the USDA Forest Service was provided to start some of the intensive work that was needed. 42 acres of brush fields were treated on the upper 2/3rds of the property. This was a grant designed to reduce fire hazard. The brush species treated in this part of the project was Ceanothus cordulatus, (Whitethorn) which is a particularly difficult species to treat because of the wiry small-stemed thickets it produces. The classic forestry treatment is to tractor pile with a bulldozer and brush rake into burn piles. This process exposes soils to wind, sun and water erosion. Seed of Ceanothus is stimulated to germinate by burning large brush piles. All roots left in the ground will stump sprout and would re-establish brush fields in 3-5 years. This prescription utilizes herbicide treatments to control re-sprouts. A different work prescription was implemented at Grand Bluffs. A brush masticating machine called a Timber-Ax, that uses a mowing action, was used to cut and reduce to chipped wood the Whitethorn stands that in some places covered 100% of the ground. Then a small excavator with a specially designed grapple rake would follow up and rake all horizontal rooting stems and the main root crown out of the ground and leave the roots right in place on top of the soil, mulching the area. This two-stage process worked extremely well. Fire hazard was reduced and just as important, the soils were left mulched, covered to protect vital micro-organisms. When we began with this phase of the project, no one we talked to at the Forest Service knew how to deal with Whitethorn except by brush piling. Mastication was not done as the equipment used in the past was not able to chip the wiry stems of this shrub. The rake for the grappler was designed especially for this project by a local machinist. It worked very well and visitors to the project were amazed at the extensive roots that were lifted.
In 2005, a grant of $51,000 was awarded by California State from Proposition 40 funds, to continue this work. Work prescriptions implemented on this project will protect vital watershed, a requirement of this funding. The most important goal of any management here is to keep the ground covered, allowing for a more effective water cycle. Mulched soils retain moisture, there is less evaporation, less runoff. Damaging effects of sunlight and wind fries the micro-life in exposed soils. Exposed soils become ‘capped’ by direct damage from rain drops as organic material is washed away leaving a more coarse mineral surface that becomes hard and leads to runoff. An effective water cycle provides more available water to trees and plants, and percolation to ground water tables. It provides for a slow release of water, rather than runoff and evaporation.
When starting the initial brush treatment prescriptions, it wasn’t known what sort of habitat was out in the Whitethorn thickets as it was virtually impenetrable to humans. It was thought maybe all kinds of smaller critters, mice, voles, snakes, squirrels or birds may have been affected by the treatment, but as the machines started working, it was apparent that there was little, if any, habitat for wildlife here. Once the ground started opening up, deer use increased as they started feeding on re-sprouting brush species. It was like a whole new world had opened up to them. As many as 20 deer were seen in a 10 acre unit of cleared brush, whereas before it was impenetrable. Decadent brush is not palatable, however, the young sprouting shoots are deer favorites. With greater access to good forage, deer herds will increase. The herding effect of many split-hooved animals moving through feeding corridors has a unique result, ground-tilling organic matter, forest litter, chips of decaying, fallen or burnt wood, into soils. This herding effect is a key natural element of all Sierra ecosystems that is virtually non-existent now.
Most of the manzanita species and coffeeberry shrubs , which are less that 5% in the brush areas, were left. The seeds and berries from these species tend to be the dominant components in bear poop. Other preferable bear food, currents, elderberries and gooseberries thrive in a more open natural landscape and were also left in place. Raptors seem to be more present in the winter months out here as they can focus in on voles, mice and small squirrels scurrying over the tops of snow fields. As the area is opened up, it is hoped that raptors and owls increase because the solid brush cover for small critters, including pocket gophers, will be reduced.
Another key element to this type of restoration is soil building. A management tool utilized would be to innoculate marginal sites with compost tea made of micro-organisms from healthy humus found in nearby forests. These micro-organisms are fungal micorrhizae and bacteria that are critical to the decomposition process of organic forest litter to humus which sustains soil life, increases moisture retention, lessens run-off, and promotes percolation.
Ninety-nine percent of grasslands in California are not native. These are grasses from the Mediterranean region of the world. The Grand Bluff project site is rich with native grasses. Seed from these grass stands are being collected and grown for seed increase and sown into open areas for quick perennial cover to act as living mulches for conifer seedling plantings and erosion control.
The mix of hardwood tree species includes Black Oak, Golden Oak, Hazelnut, Scouler Willow and Western Dogwood. These species are all prolific seeders. Managing brush areas to reduce competition and enhance natural seeding will ensure that these hardwood species will be components of diversity on the site. Most forest land management in the Sierra does not consider these species as valuable to forest production, but they are integral components to wildlife habitat.
The project site has many ‘benches’ in the topography that are dominated by brush species that naturally reclaim deep, high moisture soils that originally were habitat for old growth forests. Most restoration of public lands in the Sierras on these types of sites consists of replanting with one or two pine species deemed most valuable for timber production. These mono-cultured tree farms do not make healthy forests. The diversity of conifer species that are present at the site includes Ponderosa Pine, Jeffey Pine, Incense Cedar, White Fire and Sugar Pine. These species of trees have seed-bearing native strains in the Summit Creek area that can be used for propagation of seedlings to be planted out. Also, brush treatment areas will be good seed beds for natural regeneration. Giant Sequoia, the Sierra Redwood, are located in isolated groves in this region and will be a component of the conifer mix. Intermountain Nursery operates a Forestry Nursery on the Grand Bluff property site and conifers were started in 2003 and 2004 for planting after mastication was finished. In April of 2005, 3800 seedlings were planted out on about 13 acres of ground that was treated in Summer, 2004. Planting conditions were excellent, with plenty of moisture in the soil and dug root crowns and debris affording what will be good protection and shade through the first growing season. In spring 2005, 7,8000 seedlings were grown at the nursery to plant out in 2006. This planting was accomplished with staff from the nursery, friends and other workers.
The established mixed-conifer forest on the lower reaches of the Grand Bluffs property, and the potential forest to be planted out or naturally seeded on the middle and upper reaches, will be key components to the long term sustainability of the project. Conventional logging practices, that leave Sierra eco systems severely damaged, will not be used here. Rather, low-impact ‘cut to length’ logging systems that use appropriate technology to thin while harvesting merchantable timber up to 20-24" diameter, will be used to manage these timber lands. This is great technology that mechanically cuts, limbs, bucks and removes saw logs from timber stands without skidding (dragging) logs on skid trails that damage soils and remaining trees. All limbs and tops are left in the woods to mulch and decompose into forest humus. Using this system, experienced operators will leave timber stands open, with good distance between remaining trees, selecting and harvesting to maintain diversity of species, and ultimately to promote old growth forests.
Low intensity fire is another tool that should be used after commercial thinning in the lower 1/3rd of the project. Although air quality issues are limiting wide spread fire use, hopefully there still will be windows of clean air days in the future. Low-intensity fire and other vegetation management tools will help create a more open and park-like landscape as John Muir first related Sierran forest lands to be. Reducing ‘ladder fuels’ of brush and low tree limbs will contribute to a fire-safe landscape.
In 2006, $10,300 was awarded for shrub species 'lifting' on the upper reaches of the property where no treatment had been done previously. This process proved to be very successful and 'windrows' were constructed with the Ceanothus species up-lifted. The soil here is very friable and contains more organic content then previously thought due to the rocky nature of the area. This area will potentially be a very good site to plant seedling conifers. In 2006, 10,000 conifer seedlings were grown at the mountain nursery site for planting in spring 2007. Species grown were Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine, Incense Cedar and Giant Sequoia. This planting will be carried out by a contract crew and by the owners and friends.
The management practices we are employing at Grand Bluffs can be used throughout the Sierra where ever the conditions permit. Many of our ideas are not new and are being practiced in Canada with their Eco Forestry movement and some are being taught by the Allen Savory Center for Holistic Management in New Mexico. Some of our ideas are new however, and they are arrived at by observation coupled with principles from a Holistic framework. We have no knowledge of these practices being used in forestry in California.
One of the most contentious issues in the Sierra is how to manage the forest properly. Environmentalists are afraid that if harvesting is allowed, it will get out of control. Loggers hands are tied, they have to jump through too many hoops, meanwhile, the overall health of the forest declines. As private landowners, we can adjust our management from year to year based on what we have learned. The Forest Service is restrained by lack of funds, environmental logjams and less than adequate people power. The Grand Bluffs Demonstration Forest can be a place to show people what works and what doesn’t for years to come. We want to invite people from all sides of the issue to come and see what can be done and hopefully we can help discover and demonstrate better management practices.
The Grand Bluffs Demonstration Forest is being utilized by natural resource educators and students as a working classroom. Research scientists have contacted us to make arrangements to conduct field studies and some have already begun. Many field trips have been held with the Reedley college forestry students, Fresno City College ecology classes, the local Fire Safe Council, Forest Service employees, Watershed management groups, biologists, Edison foresters, private forest contractors and interested parties. Photo point records are being taken and reports of work done complied. Classes on Wildflower Identification, Forestry practices and Geologic features are being offered by the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, California Native Plant Society and Intermountain Nursery.
In 2006, we wrote a grant proposal to fund a Conservation Easement on the property. We are very gratified to say that the Easement has been funded by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. We would like to thank the many individuals who assisted with this project and with securing the funding.
We have continued with forest management in 2007 by thinning the 100 acres of mixed conifer forest with a cut-to-length low impact logging system, removing much of the small diameter timber that was overstocked. We also removed some large diameter trees to help pay for the thinning. In 2008, we were funded to have a pre-commercial thinning effectively removing suppressed stands of cedars and firs and pruning the conifers 10-20 ft. above ground. This practice removes 'ladder' fuels and further creates a landscape that is able to withstand a fire. The forested areas are about 2/3rds treated now and these areas are opened up and accessible to wildlife and humans too. We hope to treat the remaining one third in 2009. We have been planting a few thousand trees every year in the 100 acres where brush was masticated. Winter 2008 we were able to successfully burn piles on the upper 80 acres above the road and within the forested areas where masticated and 'pulled' brush had been piles when there was too much organic matter on the ground. We will be planting within these burn piles spring 2009
Bonnie L. Bladen
Raymond G. Laclergue
Intermountain Nursery 30443 N. Auberry Rd. Prather, CA 93651-9600